Flashback: 2004-05 NBA season. The Atlanta Hawks fill their head coaching void with a guy no one had ever really heard of. A first-year, defensive-oriented, completely green-to-the-first-seat-on-the-bench Mike Woodson. The Hawks, ahem, struggled. Woodson’s first season was a disaster, as Atlanta finished with a 13-69 record. Fortunately, things would get better. With improved personnel and added experience, the Atlanta Hawks improved their win total in each successive season during Mike Woodson’s tenure, following that 13-win abomination with seasons of 26, 30, 47 and finally 53 wins in the last year Woodson would be with the team.
Here’s the thing about those Mike Woodson-led Atlanta Hawks teams: They were never really a true threat to win an NBA championship. And they were BORING. Nobody likes to watch isolation basketball and that’s exactly what those Atlanta teams specialized in. Whether it was Joe Johnson attempting to wiggle his way into the paint for a contested floater or Josh Smith taking it upon himself to hoist a contested 20-footer, the constant lack of ball movement made the Hawks an incredibly easy team to defend despite the fact that they had some talented pieces. Atlanta decided to part ways with Woodson seemingly for that exact reason.
Woodson would get redemption after taking the incomparable Mike D’Antoni‘s seat at Madison Square Garden, leading the Knicks to an 18-6 record to finish out the 2011-12 NBA season as an interim head coach. The Knicks brought him back to coach the 2012-13 variation and Woodson did not disappoint. The Knickerbockers jumped out of the gate to a 19-6 record and finished the season with 54 wins, their best finish in more than a decade. A guy who was once thought to be a stubborn, boring, old-school type basketball mind proved otherwise, as Woodson embraced small-ball and sabermetrics in one fell swoop. His decision to play Carmelo Anthony at power forward nearly propelled him to an MVP award and his embracing of a more wide-open offense based upon rapid ball movement and a plethora of made 3-pointers created all kinds of problems for defenses who felt going in they were going to see the same old isolation-style Mike Woodson offense with Carmelo Anthony as the centerpiece.
It wasn’t just Xs and Os that made the New York Knicks a contender in 2013. Mike Woodson was a master at managing personalities as well. The much maligned J.R. Smith embraced his role as a sixth man and had a career year. Amar’e Stoudemire, much to the surprise of pretty much the entire tri-state area, proved willing to take a backseat and play limited minutes off the bench once he returned from injury, putting the team above his individual numbers in the process. The players appeared to love playing for him and Woodson had taken his seat among the elite coaches in the game, finishing third in the NBA’s Coach of the Year voting.
When digging deeper, though, was Mike Woodson’s revelation really indeed just that or was it actually just a mirage? Those who watched the Knicks early on noticed a distinct difference in the way they played offense, that goes without saying. And the Knicks averaged 10.9 made 3-pointers on 29.8 attempts per contest, both good enough for NBA records. But as the season progressed, isolation began to rear its ugly head again. Amazingly, despite their unbelievable start offensively, New York STILL managed to run isolation sets on 15.5 percent of their plays, good for tops in the NBA. That number ballooned in the playoffs to an absurd 27.3 percent, as Indiana smartly closed out on New York’s shooters and turned the Knicks offense into basically a series of contested long 2-pointers from Carmelo Anthony. More troubling than that? Woodson’s inability to make proper adjustments against an Indiana offense that struggled all season long. Despite the fact that the 2012-13 New York Knicks were the most talented team Mike Woodson has ever coached, the end result was the same for this squad: an early exit in the postseason.
The 2013-14 season will be Mike Woodson’s toughest task to date. Managing personalities? How about adding Metta World Peace and Andrea Bargnani to the mix? Can Woodson keep J.R. motivated after the Knicks locked him up to a long-term deal? This Knickerbocker roster is certainly better than last year’s. But they’ve been passed from a talent standpoint by Indiana, Chicago and Brooklyn in the Eastern Conference alone. So, is Mike Woodson truly an elite coach? The jury is still out, but this is a question that will likely be answered at the conclusion of the 2013-14 NBA season. And if Woodson doesn’t get more proactive and ditch all the isolation, it’s hard to fathom the New York Knicks making any real noise next year.